photo: Krister Palais
Universal Black Music
Yours truly met Vasti Jackson at the Skånevik Blues Festival, where we shared backstage several nights and connected. We agreed to do an interview and it occurred at the local Fjord Hotel. Vasti Jackson doesn’t need a longer introduction. This following story tells about his rather long and comprehensive career. In blues, soul, jazz and gospel. He’s been a bandleader, songwriter, composer, arranger, recording technician, producer, concert- and recording artist. You name it! All during his relatively underrated career, seen with a European point of view.
KP – Can we start with your name? To our readers it may be rather unusual and may have a certain symbolic meaning.
VJ – Vasti is the name my mother Josie Jackson gave me. Vashti was a Persian princess, in the old testament of the bible, in the book of Esther. My mother was hoping for a daughter, but I came instead. She would take the h off in the spelling and gave me the name, spelled Vasti. From the aspect of the origin of the name, it’s from Sanskrit and means to will, or command. And also it means huge vision, vast eye. Like broad vision, positive vision.
KP – Obviously, you have that kind of vision in music. I mean, you’re not only a performer. You’re an artist who can handle the many phases of music elements.
VJ – Oh yes. I guess it’s because I love the art so much. I’m very inquisitive, and always have been. Whether it’s as starting up as a drummer, playing the guitar, exploring the bass and writing songs. Then, from writing horn charts or arranging. Composition and recording as a recording engineer. This is all interesting and I’m very curious. So, I will be a life long learner in this. It’s always interesting to hear different sorts of melodies. To hear how somebody is playing in a horn section, or a rhythm section. Traditional blues and modern blues, you name it. Latin music, Calypso. African music from Senegal, South Africa, Morocco. Wherever, you know.
KP – Maybe we can sum it all up as “Universal Black Music”?
VJ – Well, you can call it anything, wherever the labels works. If you feel that it displays the components you are interested in. You know, it does something really good for my health. The music heals me, and it restores me. And it energizes me and uplifts me. And it doesn’t matter from what source. Of course I have this special, special connection to American roots music. Blues and Gospel first. And then in there is soul, jazz, rock’n’roll, and reggae. Also would I say, blues, jazz and country. Because of my heritage, that’s where I’m coming from.
KP – Did you realize it early, that music would be a major occupation in your life?
VJ – I don’t know if it was exactly music, because it was always around my house. I think I probably knew when I was about 12, maybe 14 years old. There was no consideration of anything else. I didn’t know that I would do music as a profession. I had so much love and compassion for the music, that it was just like something that would be with me, whether I got paid or not. It took up so much of my time, it was no room to resume anything else. Thanks God those elements came together, my passion is my career and my work. I never dread working, doing music. Never any dread at all. I’m always very thankful, whether I’m alone in the studio, or working with some other musicians, playing live. I’m always very enthusiastic.
KP – How did you started off in practical. Was it by playing the instruments, or in other ways?
VJ – I come from a musical family. My grandmother played, my grandfather played. My aunts played piano, so music was always around the house. Music was never thought of as something you do for a career. People are poor in southern Mississippi. People work, they make clothes, and they play music. Around the house were lots of musical families, it’s just part of the village. It was no calculated thing. It was just part of life, very, very second nature. Even as a teenager it wasn’t like; “I’m gonna be a musician and make a living”. That wasn’t the thought. This is what we do to fellowship. We entertain, we sing. Someone sings, someone plays guitar, or someone plays the piano. And then, when I was like 15, people began to pay me to perform. That’s the initiation of commerce, but it was never some calculated thing. It was about love, fellowship and joy, virtually. Just another gift from God. Yeah!
KP – The more musician you became, the more you probably wanted to explore the music. With your early experiences, all the way to top producing eventually. Did you write music back in the early days?
VJ – I was writing really before I became a professional musician. As far as writing the songs I did. It wasn’t calculated, you’re just getting your ideas out. People began to appreciate it and you do something else. And then, you share with friends, and they share with you. And it spread, it gets bigger. From a professional standpoint, the older musicians would hire me because I could hear the music. I didn’t know the name of the strings, or anything, when I was 15. I knew nothing scholastic or academic. It’s all ears. So, if I could play old music, I could play with the old guys. My grandfather played acoustic guitar and harmonica. I heard that, I could feel for the music. It’s very natural.
The more people know you, the more you get into situations. I was in the situation where those guys would ask me into a sort of jazz ensemble. And there were music that had to be read, as they were playing. I was trying to listen and hear, but the chords moved so fast I couldn’t pick them up so quick. The guys said; “Excuse me guitar player, you can start at maybe 42, or something. Unplug your guitar and don’t come again until you can read music”. Someone there thought it was very harsh. It maybe was, but it motivated me. I got a guitar book, talked to a flute player and we get to get some formal instructions about music. The guitar parts, name of the strings, the scales. I could play the chords but still didn’t know the names of them. I began to study music in more of an academic thing combined. Not just in the house now, but in school, under the instructors Kermit Holly Jr. and William “Prof” Davis.
KP – So, eventually you got hired by bands and other musicians there?
VJ – Well, I was being hired by other players before to know how to read music. First by “Big Moody” Coney, in McComb, Mississippi, my birthplace. You know, the birthplace of Bo Diddley. And in that area you have The Jackson Southernaires and Williams Brothers. Lots of musical families come from that area, in blues and gospel.
Like people who pop wood, do these things and sing in church on Sunday. In my family, on my grandmothers side, it was preachers and ministers. On my grandfathers side, he was the bluesguy. She was always praying and teaching the bible. He was always playing the blues and drinking. So, I get this thing from the gospel and the blues very young. Then my grandfather moved to New Orleans and I would go and visit him there. That was my first heavy exposure to New Orleans music. You know; Second Line, Dixieland and Traditional jazz. Louis Armstrong and those type of things. So, it’s broadening out off blues, gospel and jazz. There were other artists who were bridging the gap. The Staple Singers were also from Mississippi. I remember very clearly those days of hearing “The thrill is gone”, “I’ll take you there”, from a whole ‘nother side. It was a long time, I was really up aged in my late teens, before I knew who Jimi Hendrix was, and all that. Because in my grandmothers house, you just couldn’t play any kind of music. You couldn’t drink in the house, and no one smoked.
KP – Your reputation kept growing and more people started to hire you. As a bandleader, arranger, producer, and so on. Please, tell me more about that.
VJ – Interestingly enough. My first real studio exposure began in Jackson when I went to Jackson State University. I was playing percussion and my guitar. Lannie Spann McBride, who was gospel artist, hired me to play. Because of my baptist experiences playing the guitar. Then we got some of that at Malaco Records. So, my first exposure was when I was 17. I did some stuff with McKinley Mitchell at Malaco Records. Compared to McComb, which is a small town, Jackson is a very big city. In the city, some of the musicians that I met there liked what I was doing. I immediately got hired by older musicians in Jackson, to play in an establishment five nights a week. They were Louis Lee, a wonderful saxophone player. Tommy Tate, a wonderful vocalist, who wrote songs for Bobby “Blue”Bland. Glen Holmes, who was the drummer for Latimore, straightened things out. I was working with those guys, when I was just this 18 years old kid, and they were in their 40’s and 50’s.
At the time I did a record for a company called East Jackson Music. I didn’t know I produced the record, because I didn’t know anything about business, nothing about music producing. When I was working in the studio with McKinley Mitchell, there’s a great guitarist named Teddy Royal, from New Orleans. I think he was from out of town London. Teddy was like his bandleader when I was doing the gigs. We were playing behind McKinley, Eddie Floyd and people. I just showed up in the studio and I had the charts with me in my hands. McKinley noticed that and he hired me to be like his bandleader. With pick-up bands on the road. It was just he and I traveling around in his Cadillac Eldorado. It was like sort of a sea-foam green, with an olive-green top. For an 18 years old kid this is spectacular. But what I didn’t know, he was paying Teddy, back in that time, like 200$ a night. When he got me, he paid me 75$, because I was 18 and didn’t know. I knew nothing about this. We would go out to do the shows with Bobby Bland, O.V. Wright and Johnnie Taylor. I was meeting all those people when I was 18. I get to the gig and I did the sound-check. In the hotels I would rehears the music without charts. Some of the other horn players, they said; “Yeah, but about the alto-sax, it’s written out of arrange. You should re-right it here. Put the trombone on top”, so forth and so forth. These people were teaching me things as well. And one guy, Preston Wynn, he was out of Chicago. I don’t know if he’s still alive, but he worked with Tyrone Davis. He taught me some, so I learned a lot from the elders, coming in and being trusted in that position.
When I was back in Jackson, I was asked to cut records with musicians, did I have a band? I did that, arranged the horns, the keyboards, for the sessions. I didn’t get paid for it, I didn’t know I was supposed to. It was just an opportunity to cut real music. It was around 77-78, I was 18 years old, and that wasn’t the music of my generation. But the work that I was doing was with blues and soul artists. I wasn’t doing some funk, or funk-rock. I would go out with these older musicians and artists. Through all that I met the people of Malaco. And that led to the aspect of doing recording sessions at Malaco Records. I worked with McKinley Mitchell, The Jackson Southernaires, The Williams Brothers. With that experience I went to Los Angeles for a while.
KP – For the 18 years old kid you were, you were quite experienced. And quite busy going on the road by then?
VJ – I was gaining a lot of experience. I was experienced by many standards, yes I was Because I worked with these old people. I wasn’t experienced from the concept of knowing the profession, or the business. It was just the love of music, with enthusiasm and excitement, to do any kind of music. There I got my first string arrangement for Tommy Tate, on the record called; “You taught me how to love”. And Mickey Davis, who was the concert master for The Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, assisted me with the arrangement. That was my first session, producing a session for strings. I was about 19 years old and these were the things that was occurring in my life.
I was out on the road with Geater Davis and McKinley Mitchell. We were down in Miami, Birmingham, Nashville. We played this place called “Exit Inn” in Nashville. The people who played there were Larry Coryelle, Robot Washington, and I remember meeting Sweet Charles, the bassplayer with James Brown. I began to meet people who were into different kinds of music. That was what was happening at the time.
Photo: Krister Palais
KP – When did you start to record under your own name?
VJ – I think it was around 93-94. And it wasn’t necessarily my focus to do that. I wrote music and I played a lot. It was one thing that began to happen with the R&B artists I was working with. I would open the shows and I played instrumentals. People wanted to hear singers, so I would sing. In the high school days, I worked with quires in the church, because I was so fascinated by music,. I knew how to arrange vocals and things. So I had that experience. I would open the shows as Johnnie Taylor’s and McKinley Mitchell’s bandleader. I tell you this because it’s kind of a little tribute. We were at this place called “Jimmy’s” in Dayton, Ohio. We played all those instrumentals, and people went; “Come on Johnnie Taylor, Johnnie Taylor, Johnnie Taylor”! I said; “This is getting boring, this is a blues club, we cannot play like jazz instrumental standards”. I started singing songs and the audience was having a ball, man! They gave me a standing ovation, right. Then when Johnnie came off stage after his show, he called me to the dressing room. He said; “Listen man, I don’t want you to sing no more before I come off stage. Because I don’t need you to make my job harder for me. I hired you to be the bandleader, so play instrumentals”. I guess that was the first time I really realized, outside of my norm, that an audience could appreciate it. And really respond to more than the aspect of only playing guitar. I could sing, but it wasn’t that I did consider myself as a singer. How can you, because you’re working with those people who were great legendary singers. I’m a guitarist, I’m a musician, I’m a reader, I’m a writer, I’m a producer. I never stopped to analyze my singing voice that much. If some one needs me to sing, I sing, you know.
Part of the time as I was working as the music director for ZZ Hill. On almost all of the Malaco recordings, I became like the default guy. But I was working with Katie Webster for Alligator Records, and Katie told me I should record some. She liked my voice. I think the first record I did with Katie was called “Two fisted Mama”. I did a duet with Katie, on a song called “Love DeLuxe”. I was singing very light, but because of Katie. Just for being in the studio with her, you don’t try to overwhelm the artist. It wasn’t my place to be up front. We did this duet, because she wanted me to sing, she liked my singing voice. Anyway, Katie Webster and Wayne Bennett, great guitarist with Mel Brown, they pushed me. I have to take you back to this, to put this together so it will make sense. The two people who encouraged me the most to record, was Wayne Bennett and Katie Webster. I was about 19, so I’m going back some in the time here. We were on the road when I met Wayne with Bobby Bland. Me and Wayne, we were both playing with Bobby Bland. They are my two mentors, and I have pictures of that. We were all in Antone’s, Austin, Texas. Nevertheless, Wayne told me; “Man, you need to cut your own record. Don’t wait, you should start recording your own music for yourself”. This is what he said, and I understood it, though I didn’t understand it that day, when he told me. Okay, I didn’t do it when he said it. It could have been 4 or 5 years later when Katie told me. She really, really pushed me. That’s when I started recording, in 1994. Before that, I did little things, drifting around. In 1984 we did a recording for Delta Blues Festival called “Delta State of Mind”, still a wax record.
KP – You worked with Martine Scorsese too, with some music for his films.
VJ – Yeah, this part was called “The Blues”. It’s a seven part docu-drama. It traces the blues from Africa, all through America, the Caribbean and all that. The first thing I did was, which is a blessing as well, with a native Mississippian Charles Burnett. He was the director and we did a thing called; “Warming by the devils fire”. I wrote a song for that called; “Train Rolling Blues”. Interestingly enough, we were filming near the railroad tracks in Vicksburg, Mississippi. For this particular scene was needed some music. He told me; “I need a song for this take”. So, I went back to the hotel, and when I came back I had the song written. This was along the railroad tracks and WC Handy got inspiration for “St. Louis Blues” by an itinerate blues musician, which I played the part. He was sitting at the railroad tars playing. And W.C. Handy supposedly was standing on the train while it stopped at the station. He hear this young guy, gets the motives and stuff, it inspired him. Interestingly enough, it began to miss to rain, we had to film the scene before it start raining. When I hummed the idea to Charles, he said; “I love it, this will work, great”! As I’m playing it somebody said; “Listen, he played with his knife”. Because back in the old days everybody didn’t have slides. So I played with a knife, and I never did that before. I started going over the part with the knife, and they said; “Wait a minute, here’s a train. Oh my God, we can get this train, even with the train whistle”. They started filming and I’m singing the song. I’m playing this and they couldn’t script a locomotive coming down the track, but it did. So you got this music and the actual happening in the scene. The miss to rain clouds hanging like curtains above the character of W.C. Handy. That was my first association with that project. Scorsese and the people of New York loved the song for that particular scene. Then they asked me to do a studio version, which I did for a playback version. But they actually used the live version, so what you hear is only recorded once, live along the tracks in Vicksburg.
Then I got a call back from Wim Wenders, another director. He was doing segment nr. 4 called; “The Soul of a Man”. They asked me to do the character of Ike Zimmerman, who was a bluesman from Canton, Mississippi. Those were the two segments that I worked on for that. It’s a 7 part DVD serial, featuring; Eric Clapton, Lulu, Jeff Beck, B.B. King, Taj Mahal, Keb Mo’, all kind of people. Interestingly enough, on “Warming by the devils fire”, of all the music that is used in that, every one else is posthumous, except me. They are like; Sister Rosetta Thorpe, Howlin’ Wolf, all kind of legends.
KP – Watching you as a live performer, I’m impressed by the way you do some songs that are important to me personally. One of them is “A change is gonna come” by Sam Cooke.
VJ – The song represents hope and attitude. For you can attach it to any particular time of history. The song is about hope and optimism, over all. To believe that there’s a possibility. Not only a possibility but it is undeniable. I’m telling you, I am communicating that this is not just a dream. It’s inevitable that a change is coming. Either it’s gonna be tomorrow or whenever, it’s hoping for the better. The way I’m looking at it, because I’m of a certain age group. As a young child, I remember the telling about the civil rights movement in America, at the time when Sam wrote the song. It applies to anybody who’s in a situation and need to take a twist for the better. I can apply to the music orchestration, with blues, jazz and that culture. A change is coming and it always does. All I can say, the main thing is, to people who are really connected to the song. They either have been in situations when they’re really were oppressed, or depressed, or abandoned, or without. You need a better change. A change is gonna come, it’s great. But a change is coming soon is better. Ha, ha, ha.
KP – The next song is by another hero of mine, Jimi Hendrix. What’s your idea about the song Hey Joe?
VJ – My idea about Hey Joe, it’s a song of swagger, I think from Hendrix’s standpoint.
I don’t really do the song like Hendrix. He did it from his experience. I slowed the tempo down, it’s a different type of groove. Different to what Hendrix did with Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding. No one can outdo Hendrix in doing Hendrix. I think about it in terms of what I feel in it. My thing is like it’s about a song of defiance. It’s a blues song first of all. Because the guy is mad as hell. He’s mad enough to shoot somebody. I don’t speak of the song in the actual literal sense, but in the aspect of more of the feeling of the song. Because I don’t in anyways condone physical violence, against women or men. For me it’s about the feeling of the song in a bigger communication. Musically, it’s loaded with a solid force that I respect. It may have be the gift that Hendrix emerged, that God gave him, that he developed. When I do the song the groove is, in lack of a better word, is blacker. It’s more African, it’s more ethnic the way I do it. It’s with a big back beat. It is just funkier, like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. I use the guitar as a way to infuse more angst. With the guitar and the voice I can sing more melody. I don’t have to change the melody, it’s no need. But still you have a skeleton there. And from the point of the guitar, it serves to intensify the emotion.
And in the aspect of the audience participation, with the call and response. Infrequently out of the black church, out of the fields with field howls. I put this in it. This is my roots, it’s Mississippi, you know what I mean. Therefore we have call and response. Then we have the masculine and the feminine, with the high sound and the low sound of the guitar. We have men and women in the audience. It’s about the interaction with myself and the audience. It’s not just that it’s a spec for come and see me, I’m on stage. No, it’s come and appreciate and celebrate all that life has to give us. We are in this together. That’s why it’s virtually impossible for me to disconnect myself from the audience. Because I know, all over the world human beings are human beings. Whether we speak the same language or not. We have very similar experiences. I can see and I can feel the experience of the various people in the audience. Sometimes I receive from them and I have to give back to them, sometimes we have to share it. Sometimes the celebrations are enormous, as you can see last night. And sometimes the message of dispare is overwhelming. And it’s often enough overwhelming to me on stage. There are sometimes, whether I play or not, because of the message and the depth of the feeling, I’m in tears. Very few times I’m gonna show that, I try to kind of disguise that in a way. It’s not a thing to show, it’s not a thing to entertain with. It’s an overwhelming joy and thanksgiving from the gift of God in this. I must emerge it, I must cultivate it, I must give it back. It has to serve the great of good of man. And people have to be uplifted. So it is a soul sacrifice, even a physical sacrifice. Because in these situations it’s very necessary for me to give all I have, or even more than I know I have. And sometimes it can be very, very drainy. I wouldn’t know that until the next day.
KP – You got some reggae songs too. What does it represent to you, where is it coming from?
VJ – This is part of our journey from Africa to the Americas. From the west coast of Africa, Brazil, all the way to the Caribbean. Further on to Mexico, Florida, the Carolinas, Mississippi and all that. Then, from an academic standpoint, modern reggae is built so much apart the aspect of the blues progression, the 1-4-5 progression. Because of the amount of percussion that’s in it, the rhythm is tighter. And because they use a lot of percussions, I’m looking for rhythm and things that are more syncopated in nature from the drums, and so forth. So what I don’t do, I’m not trying to do an interpretation of reggae. It’s hard for any drummer to handle broken 16 to the hi-hat, play the snare more of the rhythm 2 and 4. The bass drum is supposed to go according to the 2 and 4 beat, which they call the “one-drop”. So I don’t really do the “one-drop” because it’s a combination of my experiences, you know. I didn’t grow up in Jamaica, but I understand it, and I feel it, and I love it. So therefore, as I’m supposed to imitate it, I just infuse some of it.
KP – Well, I’m about to wrap it up, unless you want me to write a book about it. Let’s take it home with a standard question. Is there any highlight of your career that you want to talk about?
VJ - There are lots of high points. Right now is a high point, I really appreciate and I’m very thankful for the opportunity to sit here and chat with you. For that to be something in my life that brings you, with its pleasure. Or just information that you find interesting.
Musically, being I the studio and recording with Johnnie Taylor and he recording the song I wrote; “383 Emergency”. He recorded my song, I played the guitar and I’m sitting looking at Johnnie Taylor sitting right there. Then, of course, the Late Great Koko Taylor, she recorded one of my songs; “Let the Juke Joint Jump”. Recording with B.B. King on the “Blues Summit” album that won a Grammy. The “Hoochie Man” record I did for Bobby Rush was nominated for a Grammy. Which we recorded 3 of the songs in my studio in Hattiesburg, Miss. So, there are many highlights, you know what I mean. The old gospel; “I’m just a nobody”, with The Williams Brothers that I recorded when I was 20-22 years old. I played the lead guitar and it became a great hit in gospel. I worked with tremendous singers, Johnny Taylor, Z.Z. Hill, Bobby Bland, McKinley Mitchell, Frank Williams and all the gospel groups. Liz McComb, I’ve done her DVD. There are many highlights and things. Oftentimes, I get sort of rapture by the music. I played Central Park in New York and all of these places. But wherever the great exchanges is between humans, regardless of physical occasions, those are the highlights of my life. Whether it’s just on a personal level, or in front of 50.000 people. You better go back to your room and start writing that book now, ha, ha, ha!
Text and photos: Krister Palais / Jefferson #167